A Brief Appreciation of Metafiction
I sympathised with his attitude and still do. I also dislike characters that are writers; in that particular story I felt I had no other option, but why do so many writers utilise protagonists who are writers? One begins to suspect it is because the author knows more about the process of writing than about anything else in the entire world; indeed, in a worse case scenario, that they know only about writing…
But to return to the main topic, true metafiction requires something more to make it worthwhile than simply the fact that its subject matter is fiction. We could offer the alternative definition that metafiction is fiction that exposes the illusion of fiction, but this only gives part of the truth. The best metafiction isn't just fiction about the form of fiction. It's not even just fiction about itself. If that were the case, it would have an extremely limited range and be of little relevance to the real world.
Yes, I said more real. Bear with me…
Back in the 1940s, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt collaborated on a series of humorous fantasies now known under the collective title of The Compleat Enchanter. The earliest of these fantasies were originally published in the magazine Unknown in 1940 and they remain among the most inventive and amusing adventure stories ever written. Harold Shea and Reed Chalmers, a pair of eccentric psychologists, discover that they can enter the imaginary worlds of myths and legends by employing the formulae of the 'mathematics of magic'. One of their numerous exploits is located in the universe of Edmund Spenser's magisterial poem, The Faerie Queene (1590), complete with knights and sorcerers. Later they travel into the world of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532). What makes the conceit especially neat is that Spenser's text was originally a variation of Ariosto's, so we are given not just a story within a story, but a story within a story within a story; and each layer highlights the fictionality of the layer beneath. Some readers may find this mechanism unnecessarily elaborate, but it appeals to my own taste enormously.
It has always seemed to me that many of the most enjoyable metafictional novels and stories are primarily driven by a love of paradox. One of the main expressions of this love is through self-referentiality. It's a trick that has a very old pedigree. Examples exist in Don Quixote (1605) and The Canterbury Tales (late 14th Century) and The Thousand and One Nights (early 14th Century). There are passages in those books that refer to the books that contain them or to the authors who are writing them. One of the oldest metafictional passages in Western literature occurs in Aesop's Fables (6th Century BC). The fable in question is listed as number 96 in Chambry's famous critical edition of 1926 and in full it runs as follows:
An orator was once addressing the people of Athens, and since they paid little attention to what he was saying he asked them for permission to tell one of Aesop's Fables. On obtaining their consent he began “The goddess Demeter was once travelling in the company of a swallow and an eel. When they reached the bank of a river, the swallow flew up in the air and the eel plunged into the water.” At this point he stopped. “Well,” asked the people of Athens, “what about Demeter?” “She did nothing,” came the reply, “because she was so angry with you lot for wasting time listening to Aesop's Fables.”
This is a remarkable piece of work, because it satirises itself by referring to itself in such a way that paradox is generated, a paradox that is a subtle variant of the 'Liar Paradox' first documented by Epimenides. If listening to Aesop's Fables is a waste of time, then listening to all the fables must be a waste of time, including this one: the very one that claims that such fables are a waste of time. There's a double negative here but the positive produced as a result is temporary, because if the fable that claims the fables are a waste of time is a waste of time, then the fables aren't a waste of time, which means that the above fable must be taken seriously, in which case the fables are a waste of time… and so on.
It's a valid question to ask: what is the point of such paradoxes? What do they add to literature and human culture in general? Personally I find them amusing and would regard that as sufficient reason to justify their existence; however there is a practical element to the study of paradoxes, in the sense that they help to encourage lateral thinking. On an extreme level, unless I have utterly misread his meaning, Douglas Hofstadter in his groundbreaking Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) seems to regard such self-referential loops as the basis of consciousness itself…
But good metafiction doesn't necessarily require paradoxes of that kind. A more important function of metafiction is to remind the reader that the act of reading takes places in the real world too, that even escapism is a real life activity; indeed that true escapism simply isn't possible.
One of the many charges levelled against metafiction is that, by making constant references to its own fictional status, it blunts the emotional engagement held to be so essential to the reading experience by many critics and reviewers. The argument runs as follows: the reader wishes to lose themselves completely in the story, he or she wants to identify with the characters and feel that the situations presented to them are no less real than reality. To achieve this effect, it is necessary that the fictionality of the novel or story be temporarily forgotten. How can one care about a character that doesn't even pretend to exist?
I maintain that this approach is erroneous for several reasons. For one thing, there are never any real characters in fiction, there is only the author and the reader. All other 'characters' are simply words on a page. That a reader might wish to actively choose to ignore this fact and insist that the characters are real in his mind alters nothing. Ulysee Mérou in Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulle is still only words on a page, and even the reader who is most fully engrossed in the story still knows this, despite denials to the contrary. This is not to devalue characterisation in any way; it is merely a statement of fact, but it is a fact that must be accepted before we can progress to the understanding that characters in metafictional works may be more engaging than those in ordinary fiction.
Metafiction treats characterisation less seriously than other kinds of fiction but it doesn't follow from this that no engagement with such characters is possible as a result. In B.S. Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973) there is a poignant scene in which the dying mother of the eponymous anti-hero declares, “My son, I have for the purposes of this novel been your mother for the past eighteen years…” If this scene were replicated in an ordinary novel the words “for the purposes of this novel” would be removed; the reader would empathise with Christie and feel a certain form of sorrow about his mother's plight, sorrow for a person who never existed. That's a curious form of sorrow, a dry run perhaps for the real thing? However, in the current metafictional context of that scene, we are reminded that Christie Malry's mother isn't real, that she is only words on a page; but this realisation creates a timely reminder that we are engaged in the act of reading fiction, that we are sitting on our easy chairs (or standing at a bus stop, etc) and existing in the real world, where such situations as dying mothers are really happening now… That is why I maintain that metafictional characterisation can be even more poignant than the ordinary kind: because it constantly refers us back to reality, to the tragedies of reality and all the other experiences in the rich pageant of our shared existence.
I don't think therefore that metafiction disengages us from real feeling by breaking the suspension of disbelief, but rather that it can enhance real feeling by doing so. Ordinary fiction seeks to create a world parallel to our own in a self-contained bubble; we are then free to examine this bubble and draw conclusions about its contents and how they relate to the real world. But metafiction bursts that bubble and allows the contents to fall back onto us, where they always belonged…
When the reader of ordinary fiction sits with a book (let's nominate Lord of the Rings (1954-55) by J.R.R. Tolkien for this example) that promises to take him or her away from their lives, for however long they read it, they may maintain that they are travelling, mentally at least, to a world that isn't our world, and that this brief holiday from reality is a refreshing and invigorating experience. But in fact they have gone nowhere: for the act of attempting such escape is realistic, profoundly so. The parallel world created by the book in fact reaches around to encompass the reader, who has escaped only back into themselves, even if they aren't aware of it. In this sense, metafictional texts are more honest than conventional fictions and confront the situation without artifice.
I feel it's important to stress that all this is just my personal take on the issue. I'm acutely aware that it would be a mistake for all fiction to be deliberately metafictional. As just one example, a novel I recently read (and was very impressed with), The Tunnel (1948) by Ernesto Sabato, would gain little or nothing by the inclusion of metafictional techniques. And this is true of thousands, tens of thousands of other works. But on the other hand, it seems a shame that so many new writers are discouraged from even attempting metafiction by the literary establishment's general mistrust of it.
One of the curious things about metafiction that is rarely mentioned is how naturally it comes to the new writer. Most writers stumble upon these techniques by themselves before they learn that they are officially 'wrong'. We can regard that kind of metafiction as innocent metafiction. Leanings in this direction are swiftly remedied in the creative writing class, where the 'suspension of disbelief' credo is paramount. Later, the discontented author may rediscover metafictional techniques and begin to employ them with greater deliberation.
I think that the first time I consciously employed metafiction in prose was in a short story I wrote back in 1993 called 'The Dungeon'. In that story the citizens of a country with an oppressive ruler seek ways to imprison him, but all their efforts are in vain until they realise that he is already imprisoned in the words of the story itself. Since then I have used metafiction more and more frequently, and in my novel Twisthorn Bellow (2010) I made the reader one of the most important characters; at the end of the day, the reader really is one of the only two authentic characters in any fictional work (the author is the other). Why pretend, during the development of a fictional story, that the author and reader don't exist? That seems strange to me. After all, it is the reader and the author who suffer real pain and experience real joy, not any of the non-existent characters in the book itself. Instead of feeling empathy for the plight of fictional characters, the fictional characters really ought to feel empathy for the plight of the author and the reader…
Here is a Baker's Dozen of metafictional masterpieces:
Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller…
Muriel Spark, The Comforters
William H. Gass, Willie Masters' Lonely Wife
Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars
Miguel de Unamuno, Mist
B.S. Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry
Rhys Hughes, The Pilgrim's Regress
Felipe Alfau, Locos: a Comedy of Gestures
Flann O'Brien, At Swim Two Birds
Lawrence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
John Barth, LETTERS
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
Donald Barthelme, Snow White
Sharp-eyed readers will note that I have included one of my own books in the above list. In fact The Pilgrim's Regress is a novel that hasn't been published yet; it took me four years to write and is certainly my most metafictional work. I am very pleased with it, even though I think it will be a hard sell. Throughout the book, the main character argues with his author because he regards him (me) as irresponsible; he interferes with the direction and evolution of the plot and even succeeds in prosecuting me for what he claims is self-indulgence in my writing style. I am forced to sit through an entire chapter that is also my trial; the other characters in the book are witnesses and the reader also has a formal role to play.